Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"Gross oversaturation"

Jim T said...
I mean that there is a tremendous, tremendous amount of American poetry, much of it of quality, though it's difficult to judge because to read it all with any scrutiny takes far more time, energy and $$ than I have available. It's simply overwhelming. If tracking US poetry is a full-time job in itself, it's difficult to make time to read, much less properly contextualize, international poetries...

I don't think this is a terrible problem - not like the problem we used to have (too much hierarchy). Nevertheless it is a kind of liberal utopian trap to always think that more and more is better. And it's true that I can't even keep up with the web journals that my friends edit.

One "solution" is the much-discussed idea of "community." But this sometimes utopian idea is prone to insularity and isolation. And it doesn't deal with the problem of the unpedagogical MFA system.

It seems we need to improve as readers of new poetry. For example, I know Octopus is doing a review-only issue. Action,Yes is adding a criticism section (Danielle Pafunda is writing a brilliant piece for us). But it needs to be more than just isolated reviews.

One good thing about blogs is that it has generated some general debates about poetry (education, sincerity, flarf etc). Although I disagree with his essay, I like the way Simon Dedeo set up a critical framework for his journal "Absent" (link on the side of this blog). I think we need more things like that, new ways of reading and writing about poetry.

In fact, Jim should be writing essays (maybe you are).

But of course opinions about poetry are expressed in the very editing of journals and presses. The greatest irritation to me is when journals and presses claim to be only looking for "the best". To begin with, it's not true (obviously they have some idea of what the best is!). Secondly, it's not deadening. Be honest and have your own damn opinion.


Blogger Jim T said...

I also disagree with Simon's essay (I assume this is the one about an anarchist poetics?), and was conceiving of a rebuttal, but haven't had much time to put into that.

What do you mean by an "unpedagogical MFA system"? That MFA programs by and large don't require anything resembling rigorous coursework, research, much intellectual activity not strictly associated with creative processes, and thus don't foster the necessary vocabularies and concepts to deal with their own contradictions and the problems we're talking about? Or that they simply don't teach enough poetry?

Reviewing is certainly an important pratice, something that all poets should do, but there are anxieties associated with this as well, related to identifying and classifying certain tendencies without knowing what is and has been going on in X poetry scene, and this (unavoidable) lack of a larger picture can result in some really nasty debates...

9:57 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

By "unpedagogical" I mean a number of things.

As it relates to the issue you raised, I think most MFA teachers have not thought through their pedagogies. Programs teach poetry as a craft - that is you as a write are your own consumer, there is no need to explore or read or think about others' work (thus people rarely even want to participate in workshop discussion - mostly people want to be discussed).

The conventions of the workshop itself tend to be normative. Basically it produces a bunch of people who are not so interested in poetry, but would like to write it and get a job teaching it. And frankly they don't get students reading enough, or varied enough.

Your program is probably the least guilty of this.

The thing I would say about the "rigorous coursework" critique is that I find most PhD students incredibly lacking in their ability to think about contemporary poetry. A lot of books are being written about Susan Howe because these folks know how to plug her into their hermeneutics.

I've been meaning to write a response to Simon too (yes it was the anarchist essay). I think if you put out your neck like that you deserve people to respond. So maybe I'll do that later.

4:53 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Hi Johannes et al. --

Elisa pointed me to the remarks here. Here are a few thoughts.

1. "community". My feeling is that there is a highly functional, highly distributed (like ARPAnet, nuclear-attack resistant) poetic community. There is also a great deal of complaining about the nonexistence of such a community -- much (though not all) of which is I believe somewhat in bad faith. As you may (or may not!) know, I've run a review blog, rhubarb for the last two years, accumulating about a hundred reviews or so.

About a year into my work, a brouhaha erupted where people -- who knew about my work, some of whom were even reviewed! -- were complaining about how there was no such thing as, well, the thing I was actually doing. Of course, reading between the lines, what they meant was that nobody important -- i.e., nobody that had achieved recognition in the "real" world -- was doing what they wanted. I quit for awhile in disgust, but came back and restarted the project.

Friends of mine in the political blogging world long gave up waiting for "the establishment" to reward and annoint their work as "real". I think we need to do the same.

2. on the flip side, working on absent has really alerted me to the fact that there is a vibrant community, whose participants are not always the most vocal on the blogs. I regularly forward feedback on the work to authors, and my own experience was that my critical work there was taken seriously by a number of people -- for which I'm very grateful.

An item on my "wish list" is to figure out how to incorporate comments and trackbacks to the pieces while still respecting the "magazine" analogy. (Right now we have a "letters to the editor" page, but it's pretty bare.)

3. if you guys do want to write responses to my absent piece in a more extended/formal fashion than the blog-post format, do drop me a line. Finding good essays is difficult (although I did just accept a really fantastic one on New Orleans.)



1:26 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


With "community" I didn't mean *the* (wider) poetic community, which most definitely is a community - a hierarchical alienating community, but a community nonetheless.

What I mean was that many people I know argue that we shouldn't worry about the larger poetic community, that one should just have one's pals as a community of readers and exchangers of ideas.

While I certainly belong to a community of writers in this sense, I think this idea of community as an end in itself sells poetry short. It also seems based on a concept of poetry as purely aesthetic and seems to go hand-in-hand with a kind of arts-and-crafts ethos.

I absolutely understand what you mean about the Rhubarb situation. The wider poetic community is obsessed with legitimacy. I've received plenty of flack for Action Books and Action,Yes from the same direction. This is part of the problematic dynamic of the wider poetic community - a bunch of people raised according to certain standards. Refusing those standards freaks them out (and causes them to do things like set up the "Action,No" blog).

We've also thought about having a comment board at Action,Yes but the problem is that that kind of discussion tends to devolve into snarks and unsubstantiated ideas (as in foetry). I think it's probably better to ask people to actually write thought-out responses. But this is something we're thinking about as well.

Yes, lets do something with your essay. Jim?

4:57 AM  
Blogger Anonymous Brigham Young said...

I'd be up for putting together a response, but my critique would be far more ideological than aesthetic...

10:37 AM  
Blogger Anonymous Brigham Young said...

Oh, and regards my MFA program, we just hired a Yale Younger Poet to replace Joyelle--over Elizabeth Robinson. Fucking ridiculous. I might be doing my thesis in Fiction.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Max said...

But I'm younger than he is, so I think that means he'll have to hand over the prize to me once he gets here.

7:33 AM  

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